Written by Matt Caprioli, Content Marketer at eZ

Day three of the 2015 eZ Conference in New York will see digital UX crusader Karen McGrane dissect her latest thoughts on digital trends, particularly adaptive content. McGrane, who has lead major redesigns of websites like The New York Times and The Atlantic, is a sought-after speaker for her entertaining delivery and trenchant insight. For proof, check out Karen’s re\VISION Boston talk from last year.

We caught up with Karen before her Design Management class, which she teaches at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan. In this excerpted interview, we discuss the implications of adaptive content and why she continues to give talks at eZ events. In the full interview, now available on eZ’s Medium profile, we delve into what makes ProPublica’s website awesome, and why we should still get hot and bothered by the term “information architecture."

Since your last talk with eZ in 2014, what has changed with adaptive content?

The talk that I’m going to give is a little more nuanced perspective on some of the benefits and drawbacks of adaptive content. What has changed in the last year or so is that adaptive content has been picked up as a buzzword, especially in the content marketing world.

There’s a lot of enthusiasm for the idea of being able to create more adaptive experiences, but I don’t think that enthusiasm is always tempered by a realistic point of view on how much effort is required to do adaptive content well.

I have gotten the sense that a lot of people equate it essentially to magic, that you’re just going to wave your adaptive magic wand over your content, and then everything will be exactly what the customer wanted.

I think there are a lot of limitations there. While I’m one of the web’s leading advocates for adaptive content, in many scenarios it is either not necessary or more risky than some other solutions. My goal with this talk is to unpack what does adaptive mean: why do people want to use adaptive? What are some of the scenarios under which adaptive makes sense? When does it not make sense?

When is an adaptive approach required?

In my talk, I outline three different scenarios where people may want to use adaptive solutions—and explain that what we can know is almost always an inadequate proxy for what we wish we could know.

One scenario for adaptive is truly device-specific targeting, where you are attempting to tailor the design or the content so that it’s different depending on the device someone has. My argument around device-specific-tailoring is that in most cases—in virtually every case—it’s not necessary. When people talk about wanting to do device-specific-targeting, what they’re actually doing is using device as a proxy for context.

My argument is that device is always an inaccurate proxy for context. You will never be able to glean what the user wants or what their intent is or what their context is from the type of device that they have in their hand. You might be able to glean some of that from other variables.

So contextual targeting is the second scenario under which you may talk about adaptive solutions. You want to know the user’s context so you can tailor the experience, and so you attempt to determine that from information you can get from the device. That may be the device’s location, it may be the time of day, it might be other variables that you can pull out of the sensors of that device. I have one example that talks about using the velocity that the device is going as a proxy for knowing the the user is in a car.

However, those are, in almost all cases, pretty inadequate proxies for genuine user context. When I talk about adaptive being used to support contextual targeting, I talk about it as a worthwhile goal, and you should try to do that if that’s what you really need to do, but you have to assume that whatever variables you are using as a proxy for context are always going to be somewhat inaccurate. But it’s better to use truly contextual variables like location to support adaptive solutions than trying to make assumptions based on device type.

The third scenario is truly personalized context. Being able to target the experience to what you know about the user as a person. That may be their age, or their life stage, or what languages they speak.

Personalization as a subject is a hugely complex topic. While I totally understand that there are a lot of organizations that want to use personalization, my point of view is that it is far more complex to do right than many organizations think it is. In most scenarios I think companies would be better off identifying only the most limited scenarios under which that personalization makes sense, and then go from there.

In this talk, I’m most interested in dealing with the first two topics, because that’s where a lot of confusion lies around adaptive and device-specific solutions. But I do think it’s necessary to mention personalization because I think that’s where the industry is going to end up going.

As you work daily with real customer cases, what is your take on people’s understanding of the concept behind responsive and adaptive? Do you think customers really understand what is behind the buzzwords “responsive” and “adaptive?”

To expand on my previous point a little bit, I do see a sort of naive understanding of what goes into adaptive and I think in particularly to the contrast to what the benefits and drawbacks of responsive design are.

There is a sense in the industry, especially as you are attempting to provide a great experience across a variety of different devices and form vectors, that responsive design isn’t good enough, and that you should do adaptive.

The way I often describe it is that I think responsive design is going to solve for 90 to 95 percent of your problems.

If you start there, that will give you a solid foundation that then when you later need or want to optimize for a specific contextual scenario, or you want to personalize the experience or you identify some very limited cases in which device-specific targeting is actually necessary, if you have a foundation of responsive design to build on, your later work and coming up with adaptive solutions will be much easier.

I see a lot of, I guess I would say, short-sighted thinking, where people will argue against responsive design and present adaptive as a better alternative. I don’t see them that way at all.

I see them as extremely complimentary strategies, and I guess my attitude is you are going to need a website, it is going to have to be responsive, so quit dicking around with viewing that responsive is the incorrect solution, just because you can identify some narrow scenarios in which adaptive is required. Rather, think of them as complementary, and use adaptive only in the very limited scenarios when it is absolutely required.

Don’t use adaptive to try to solve for all of your problems, because frankly, for the vast majority of your problems, responsive is going to be a better solution.

This will be your third eZ event. As a veteran speaker what have you enjoyed about speaking at the eZ events?

I think eZ is a fantastic product. Everyone I know who works with it loves working with it. I think people who are recommending eZ as a solution to their clients feel great about recommending it. It can do a lot of the things a CMS needs to do.

I personally enjoyed speaking in the past because it was a great mix of client-focused, really thoughtful approaches on to how to solve some business-related challenges in media and publishing, but also with solid depth of technical expertise for developers who are coming to understand more about the platform.

Anyone you’re looking forward to hearing at the eZ Conference?

Deane Barker for sure, and Paul Boag is a fantastic, super super smart guy.

You can see Karen's fantastic talk below

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